Book review: Albert Hirschman - An Original Thinker of Our Time

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
by Jeremy Adelman - reviewed by Cass R. Sunstein


In seeking to prove Hamlet wrong, Hirschman was suggesting that doubt could be a source not of paralysis and death but of creativity and self-renewal. One of his last books, published when he was about eighty, is called A Propensity to Self-Subversion. In the title essay, Hirschman celebrates skepticism about his own theories and ideas, and he captures not only the insight but also the pleasure, even the joy, that can come from learning that one had it wrong.

Albert Hirschman, who died late last year, was one of the most interesting and unusual thinkers of the last century. An anti-utopian reformer with a keen eye for detail, Hirschman insisted on the complexity of social life and human nature. He opposed intransigence in all its forms. He believed that political and economic possibilities could be found in the most surprising places.
Hirschman is principally known for four remarkable books. The most influential,Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), explores two ways to respond to unjust, exasperating, or inefficient organizations and relationships. You can leave (“exit”) or you can complain (“voice”). If you are loyal, you will not exit, and you may or may not speak out. The Passions and the Interests (1977) uncovers a long-lost argument for capitalism in general and commercial interactions in particular. The argument is that trade softens social passions and enmities, ensuring that people see one another not as members of competing tribes, but as potential trading partners. Shifting Involvements(1982) investigates the dramatically different attractions of political engagement and private life, and shows how the disappointments of one can lead to heightened interest in the other. For example, the protest movements of the 1960s were inspired, at least in part, by widespread disappointment with the experience of wealth-seeking and consumption, emphasized in the 1950s.
Finally, The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991) is a study of the reactionary’s tool kit, identifying the standard objections to any and all proposals for reform. The objections are “perversity” (the reform will make the problem even worse), “futility” (the reform will do nothing to solve the problem), and “jeopardy” (the reform will endanger some hard-won social gain). Hirschman shows that these objections are stupefying, mechanical, hyperbolic, and often wrong. In 1845, for example, the historian Jacob Burkhardt deplored the rise of democracy and the expansion of the right to vote on the ground that he did not “expect anything from the despotism of the masses but a future tyranny, which will mean the end of history.”
Hirschman’s work changes how you see the world. It illuminates yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His categories become your categories. A lot of moderate Republicans are disenchanted with the Republican Party. Do they “exit” or do they use their “voice” to try to change the party? In much of the world, nations and regions are now riven by religious and ethnic tensions. Should they emphasize how much their citizens can gain through trading with one another? If people are willing to buy your product, you might not care which god they worship. The Arab Spring saw an extraordinary outburst in political engagement. Is disappointment with the early results shifting people’s involvement toward the private sphere?

The current debate over gun control is a case study in “the rhetoric of reaction.” Those who object to legal restrictions urge that far from decreasing the risk of violence, such restrictions will actually increase it. For Hirschman, this objection would be an example of “perversity.” Opponents also contend that if we want to save lives, gun control will have essentially no effect—the argument from futility. We can find precisely the same rhetorical gambits in countless other debates, including those over Obamacare, increases in the minimum wage, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage.
Hirschman, born in 1915 in Berlin, was an economist by training, and he spent a lot of time reading Adam Smith, but his great intellectual loves were Montaigne (with his advice to “observe, observe perpetually”) and Machiavelli. To support his points, Hirschman drew on Dante, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Chekhov, and Yeats. He had a keen interest in social psychology. Crossing Boundaries is the title of one of his books; another is called Essays in Trespassing.
Part of what made Hirschman distinctive, even unique, was his ability to develop large themes from sharp observations of particular practices, and thus to connect apparently unrelated social phenomena. It was an observation of the behavior of motorists in a tunnel in Boston—who honked with outrage when people in an adjacent lane started to move while their lane remained stuck—that helped him to develop a general theory of disappointment and indignation. He was also wry and mischievous. As he wrote in the preface to Exit, Voice, and Loyalty:
Having found my own unifying way of looking at issues as diverse as competition and the two-party system, divorce and the American character, black power and the failure of “unhappy” top officials to resign over Vietnam, I decided to let myself go a little.
As Jeremy Adelman shows in his astonishing and moving biography, Hirschman sought, in his early twenties and long before becoming a writer, to “prove Hamlet wrong.” .. 

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